A team coming off their worst record in franchise history featuring:
* A rookie point guard selected in the top-5
* The budding superstar at shooting guard coming into his second season
* An oft-injured power forward perpetually expected to have a breakout season
* Desmond Mason
* An untalented white guy with long hair completely covered in tatoos
Oddly, this could describe either NBA franchise that has played in the Ford Center as the home team.
Chris Paul played his first NBA game in Oklahoma City for the Hornets. Russell Westbrook will do the same as a member of the Thunder. In his rookie season, J.R. Smith was the best first year player in the Western Conference. Kevin Durant won rookie-of-the-year honors last year while playing in Seattle. During the Hornets first season in OKC, David West was the runner up for “Most Improved Player” mainly because he spent his first few seasons on the injured reserve. Chris Wilcox is an obviously talented post player who never seems to be healthy. “The Birdman” flew high for the Hornets–Unfortunately, it was because he was on meth–and was a fan favorite for his kooky white boy looks. On the Thunder, Robert Swift fills the role of worthless tall guy with fake pigment.
The only thing missing is the “great shooter who sits at the end of the bench and whines about wanting a trade” and if my dream of the Thunder acquiring J.J. Redick come to fruition, even that could happen.
Of course, the main difference is that the Hornets came in during their inaugural season here and played as a scrappy team that exceeded everyone’s expectations by challenging for a spot in the playoffs. With the Thunder, that is not going to happen. It basically boils down to how that very first similarity is anything but equal.
I have a mancrush on Chris Paul. There, I said it. But I am not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Recently, Charles Barkley said that when it comes to point guards, the NBA is led by Chris Paul with Deron Williams a distant second followed by guys like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. Going into just his fourth season, that is high praise for OKC’s first superstar player.
The thing is, Paul was just about that good when he played his first professional game. On opening night against the Sacramento Kings, CP3 (as he’s called) was easily the best player on the floor. He was poised. He was faster than anyone else. He saw the floor better than anyone else. And he elevated the play of every other player on the team because of those talents.
Last night, Thunder fans got their first real look at Russell Westbrook who was taken with the fifth pick of last June’s draft by the (then) Sonics. It was not impressive.
Don’t get me wrong, Westbrook obviously has talent. Athletically, he was stellar. There were fast break moments where he left defenders ins the dust. For the most part, though, he plays like a rookie. He has a tendency to think he still possesses a meteoric advantage in athleticism like he did in college, when the truth is he’s only marginally more athletic than most of his conterparts. As a result, he tries to do to much dribbling and defenders pick his pocket. From the same inflated ego, he also fails to look for his teammates. Considering it is the point guard who is supposed to get his teammates involved, this will hurt the Thunder across the board.
This was clear in the final moments of last night’s pre-season game, a game in which Westbrook was, for the most part, outplayed by the Clippers undrafted rookie point guard Mike Taylor (from Iowa State) and Westbrook’s own back up John Lucas (from Oklahoma State)…two players who will likely spend their season in the D-League. After Kevin Durant sank two free throws to give the team a one point lead and the Clippers turned the ball over with less than a minute to go, the Thunder looked to give the Oklahoma City crowd a win. Westbrook took the ball from Johan Petro and was met by Mike Taylor around the free throw line. Instead of conservatively protecting the ball, Westbrook attempted to shake and bake Taylor who easily swiped the ball. Westbrook’s attempt to foul Taylor to stop an easy dunk was soft and the Clipper’s took the lead back.
The Thunder failed to score on the next trip up the floor when Westbrook missed both of his free throw attempts (he had been seven of ten up to that point). He then got himself out of position on defense and watched Taylor blow right past him for another easy two points that ended the Thunder’s hopes.
Now, this was only a preseason game where wins and losses don’t really count, and Westbrook is bound to improve as the season progresses. However, there are going to be a lot of growing pains for this team, and the excited OKC fans who snatched up season tickets are going to have to weather the storm. While this is happening the only silver lining will be that the Thunder may lose enough games to put themselves in a position to draft Blake Griffin and keep him peeing on Oklahoma soil for years to come.
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